Trip to Sichuan Fine Art Institute 四川美术学院

Hu

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Just back from a trip to Sichuan, and places I’d long wanted to visit but never before had quite the chance.

Among them, the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute (SFAI). With Zhong Biao (钟飙) as host, I found the campus to be among the most impressive I’ve ever seen.

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To begin with, I note the emergence of trend towards revival of the ancient which has been underway for a while now, and which in any event in China is of course nothing new. Here though, its rebuttal to the build-at-any-price spate of projects great and small across China seems unusually resonate. This may be because the location of the SFAI campus, was newly situated (2005) and personally selected by Luo Zhongli 罗中立, famed figure in the history of contemporary Chinese art if for nothing more than his “Father” 父亲 painting of 1980. Under his leadership the campus was relocated to its current location in Huxi (near Chongqing, itself another wonder of this trip), and he also supervised overall design that plays on the old new theme constantly throughout, whether it be calculated distribution of ancient and blended with imitation ancient artifacts from China past–walls, gates, even footings for temple complexes that are never actually built. The overall effect is a thorough dismantling of any glorification of the old while at the same time celebrating delicate beauty of just that.

 

The campus’s wonders reside not so much in the art works distributed about the grounds (not to mention in the buildings themselves), a feature of any art campus of course, but in the incredible integration of the built with the natural environment, something difficult to imagine in other hallowed settings such as the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing or even the Chinese Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou.

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The architecture, particularly the Main Library building (Tanghua Architects and Associates, 2009), is also impressive and yet more impressively or satisfyingly situated in its environment

The main feature of the campus appropriately is the central museum, which boasts the world’s largest mural (no idea if that’s a fact, but its fun to repeat anyway), a work created of reclaimed tile fragments by faculty and students that covers not only a good portion of outward facade, but also some interior walls as well, as this courtyard shot which is a typical blend of contemporary art installation and ancient ruin rolled into one.

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And all this before one even gets to the art, which is another subject altogether.

launching Ekphrastic Assimilations 同画项目

Post-industrial Society has Arrived

I’m taking this moment, after a few months reprieve from work on this blog, to announce the launch of the Ekphrastic Assimilations project. This will involve an exhibition, held at the VALA arts center in Redmond, WA and in conjunction with Ryan James Fine Arts in Kirkland, WA from September 15 through early November, as well as an academic conference to be held jointly by Pacific Lutheran University and the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Please visit the website to learn more about the project, or check back here, where I will now be posting EA-related updates and information.

 

 

The Other Shore, New and Improved (essay)

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A new and better version of my Other Shore essay now up at MCLC

Many thanks of Kirk Denton for posting.

 

 

Zhong Biao: “The Other Shore”

Sichuan painter Zhong Biao recently opened his third one-man exhibition in the United States, the first two having occurred in San Francisco at the Frey Norris Gallery in 2007 and 2011. This time his work is on view in New York courtesy of the Klein Sun Gallery (from Feb. 18 to March 19), in operation in its current 8,000-square-foot location in Chelsea since 2013. The gallery, which represents fifteen artists including the emerging ceramicist and multi-media artist Geng Xue 耿雪 as well as more established figures such as Cui Xiuwen 崔岫闻and Liu Bolin 刘勃麟, is one of the most dynamic outfits specializing in contemporary Chinese art in New York, if not the United States. Zhong Biao fits well within this pantheon, while a bit older than most of the others represented, his work continues to be fresh, exuberant, and even visually stunning.

The show’s title, “The Other Shore,” refers in part to geography, the typical configuration of which situates China on one side and “the West” on the other. This arrangement is operative in Zhong’s work even despite its obvious shortcomings. That “the West” is an entity at all, for instance, and in any case that “China” should be its counterweight, are both notions just about as questionable as they are frequently rehearsed. Zhong’s work actually invites such conceptual speciousness, and does so not in the fashion of artistic interrogation or even playfulness; his concepts are starting points from which he launches into something actually completely different. Nonetheless and in terms of geography, Zhong’s arrival after many years in New York is worth noting.

New York is, in one narrow sense, an “Other Shore” to Beijing where his own studio is located. Both are world centers, nodes of reference in our wide, amorphous arena known as the globe. For an artist, such nodes are less anchors than, again, points of departure. In an interview in mid 2015, when asked “Of all the cities in the world, in which would you choose to reside?” Zhong’s answer was:

New York, because the richness of this city brings with it a sense of security, a security that can fully accommodate my anxiety of choosing in the first place. This also illustrates the fact that ultimately, I have no idea what I really want from this life.[1]

Cities like New York are like fuel for the engine driving artistic work, coalescences of source material that become paintings. In practice, this means that Zhong creates paintings from images he himself captures using his own digital camera or collects from any other print or digital media. The raw material of these images is then rendered and collaged by hand in oil paint or acrylic, generating images which traverse space and time while retaining a hyper-realist accuracy. Expanses of blue sky frame hairs on human flesh. Bodies, whether corpulent or lithe, old or young, are arrayed in environments built or natural, all painted in his signature minute detail. The scale of his paintings is also often very large, with his largest work — Mirage (2009) — reaching a width of fifteen meters. This scale enables viewers to travel from the quotidian to the cataclysmic and back again in the space of a single canvas. The scenes Zhong selects and then depicts are not random — they are resonate historical events, financial upheaval, political vicissitudes, scandal. These references serve to situate us as viewers securely in our present circumstances. House of Cards (2015), for instance, brings to mind the 2016 US presidential contest, and Chinese Dream (2014), is a reference to Xi Jinping’s optimistic if often derided slogan.

That said, to focus too narrowly on the thematic, symbolic, or referential elements of Zhong’s work is an interpretative misstep. The geographical or even thematic readings of Zhong’s “Other Shore” are therefore also limited. If there is one major theme which travels throughout his work, it is flight, whether of actual birds or of human figures in various states of levitation. The avian imagery carries with it its own set of symbolisms. Cranes – a symbol of longevity, among others –feature prominently in Zhong’s work, but we also see eagles, and even pigeons. The hawk in Take Off (2015), the Avalokiteshvara figure arising majestically out of Journey to the West, (2015), and the repeated image of a woman in flight seen throughout Velarium (2015), are prominent examples in this exhibition. But this is flight not entirely for its own sake. Zhong’s flight is part of a larger inclination, namely to transcend boundaries and constraining forces of almost any sort, beginning with gravity and moving on from there.

The connection with our present moment is studiously observed, and highly relevant, for therein lies part of the energy of Zhong’s work. But the energies are only observable in juxtaposition to one another. For example, in The Other Shore (2015), Palmyra, a recent casualty of ISIS aggression in Syria, occupies the upper right portion of the canvas. Palmyra is then balanced, upper-left, by the Tiger’s Nest Buddhist Temple (Paro Taktsang) in Bhutan, a seventeenth century structure built upon a mountain peak whose location has been a destination for Buddhist pilgrimage since the eight century. The center of the image, meanwhile, is the Gugenheim Museum in New York, a structure reflecting a different sort of history altogether. The three structures, all artifacts of human endeavor and ingenuity, are profoundly contrasting: one preserved for millennia only to be lost in an instant to seemingly senseless religious strife, another suspended upon a mountain peak against gravity and time, and a third in its ascendency, but with a future whose uncertainty is made clear by its contrast with the others. On closer examination, however, we see that such facile juxtapositions are not entirely what Zhong’s paintings are about. Contrasting elements are designed to reveal not the structures themselves, however meaningful they may appear, but instead underlying forces that generate or at least flow through all the material forms. This goal Zhong explained in an interview with Gao Minglu as far back as 2004:

I am always looking for an underlying or internal order driving events, and moreover attempting to use this order to comprise my own works. No matter if its ancient, modern, local, foreign, direct, indirect, whatever enters the ear, eye, mouth or heart, even if its source is gossip on the street, in the end all that can be perceived comprise the greater environment of our existence.[2]

 

With this decade-old quote in mind, we may move on to what is and what has been “The Other Shore” in Zhong’s work for a long time: time. For Zhong Biao the artist, it is the problem of depicting time that has preoccupied him from a young age. As he recalled during a recent speech given at an exhibition in Beijing, the facts that perception of an event, even one taking place directly in front of us, still occurs milliseconds after the end of the occurrence, or that the light we see coming from a distant planet actually appears to our eyes only thousands of years after the death of the planet, were entirely befuddling to him.[3] If, he continued in this speech, we consider time to be a cake, and we cut the cake in two, with the past on one side, and the future on the other, we find ourselves with nothing but a knife and a handful of emptiness.

It is also this preoccupation with time that drove Zhong, around the year 2006, to include abstract images in his work. The abstract strokes are depictions of the forces that pervade our phenomenal world, ever-present and yet not confined to linear sequence of spatial reality. This abstract element has also evolved notably as well as subtly in his work over the years. In earlier paintings, there were smooth swaths of color, executed with large brushes in a balletic process (Zhong works with an assistant who helps him move large canvases up and down as he quite literally dances and paints in front of them, often with thunderous musical accompaniment). Those abstract forms were akin to the occasional video installations Zhong includes with his exhibitions, where hyperrealist images from paintings appear on a video screen, and then dissolve, with traces of recognizable figures giving way to completely abstract forms before reconstituting as new figures. More recently, the swaths have grown richer, more angular and three-dimensional, giving a sense of layered or parallel realities torn from one another, conjuring memory both recalled and ruptured. Houhai (2015) is an excellent example of the way Zhong now deftly weaves hyperrealism with complete abstraction, allowing him to challenge the limits of each in a single canvas.

In fact, the blend of figural and abstract is broadly emblematic of Zhong’s work, both as a painter and a thinker. His goal is to use painting, among other artistic media, to challenge the limits of space and time which frame both his art and our experience. [4] Not surprisingly, frames themselves are often the subject of his work.[5] Such aesthetic strategies are more than mere meditation on the function of art and our responses to it. Instead, addressing his medium while he works is part of Zhong’s push against our understanding of the phenomenal world itself. His clever juxtapositions of disparate thematic elements which seem to enliven our current affairs, whether by reminders of still resonate events in human history or reference to current preoccupations such as terrorism or environmental distress, are actually distractions from a deeper appreciation of the degree to which we as perceiving subjects are mere conduits for energies which at any particular intersection of materialized space and time manifest as “now.” Zhong’s work, in other words, points to a state of immense surrender, to a condition where our privileging of ourselves in the here and now dissipates in a cosmic flow both ancient and endless. This also generates the essential dissatisfaction with his work, an ongoing frustration with the gaps between perceived world and the true moment (当下) of our being. At least for the moment, this frustration has not translated into a withdrawal from painting itself. May that remain the case for at least a while to come.

Paul Manfredi

Pacific Lutheran University

 

 

 

[1] Bazaar Art and Fashion 芭莎艺术. “Artist Zhong Biao: Without Curiosity, There Is No Inspiration” (艺术家钟飙:不怀揣问号,还想泡灵感?). Interview, 25 Dec., 2015. Web.

[2] Quoted in Ubiquity: Zhong Biao’s Works (无处不在:钟飙作品) 1994-2004 (Shanghai: Artscene China, 2004), np.

[3] Zhong Biao. “Exhibition Closing Remarks,” Zhong Gallery 中画廊, Beijing. 15 Oct., 2015.

[4] Zhong has worked almost entirely in oil or acrylic paint, charcoal and other such material on canvas almost exclusively. The only outlying example is the 2011 Suzhou exhibition “Tailoring Clouds,” is a good example of such attempts. Unlike previous experiments, where video installations provided distillations of images he provides on canvas, “Tailoring Clouds” involved extensive installation of artifacts (burial stones, petrified rocks, miniature structures, 3d printers and more), a cohort of Zhong Biao-esque elements which actually demonstrated wide-ranging intellectual interests quite well.

[5] Zhong is fond of painting frames, which can be either paintings within paintings, or, as in the series from 2009, contrasting abstractions and frames (Invisible Possibilities 无形的可能性) for instance depicts frames within frames, in some cases including viewers observing the “canvases” from within the canvases,西游记 Journey to the West 280x200cm 布面油画、丙烯 Oil and acrylic on canvas 2015 纸牌屋 House of Card 150x120cm 布面油画、丙烯 Oil and acrylic on canvas 2016 天幕 Velarium 100x75cm 布面油画 Oil on canvas 2015 中国梦 Chinese Dream 150x120cm 布面油画、丙烯 Oil and acrylic on canvas 2016 Zhong_Biao_Houhai_Lake_Acrylic_and_Oil_on_Canvas_150x200cm_2015 HouseofCards

The Other Shore: Zhong Biao at Klein Sun Gallery in New York

"The Other Shore" opening

“The Other Shore” opening

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On view now is Zhong Biao’s exhibition “The Other Shore.” In addition, there is an annex featuring recent work collectively titled “Fountain” 泉 of photographer, installation artist 蔡东东 (pictured with gallerist Eli Klein and Zhong above). Below is the essay I wrote for the catalogue.

 

Zhong Biao: “The Other Shore”

Zhong Biao’s exhibition “The Other Shore” refers in part to geography, in which a typical configuration sees China on one side, and the West on the other. In the case of the present exhibition at Klein Sun Gallery, Zhong is making his first appearance in New York, the “Other Shore” being relative to Beijing. In fact, in an interview in mid 2015, when the artist Zhong Biao was asked the following question: “Of all the cities in the world, in which would you choose to reside?” Zhong’s answer was:

New York, because the richness of this city brings with it a sense of security, a security that can fully accommodate my anxiety of choosing in the first place. This also illustrates the fact that ultimately, I have no idea what I really want from this life.[1]

Zhong’s preference for such global urban centers is connected to his process as an artist. These are places where the concentration of human activity is high enough to provide sufficient material for his work. In practice, this means that Zhong Biao’s paintings are created from images he collects from his own digital camera or from other print or digital media. This raw material is then rendered and collaged by hand in oil paint or acrylic, generating images which traverse space and time while retaining a hyper-realist accuracy. Expanses of blue sky frame hairs on human flesh. Bodies, whether corpulent or lithe, old or young, are arrayed in environments built or natural, usually painted in minute detail. The scale of his paintings is often very large, with his largest work Mirage (2009) reaching a width of fifteen meters. This scale enables viewers to travel on foot a path which flows from the quotidian to the cataclysmic and back again in a single image. The scenes Zhong depicts are familiar – historical events, financial upheaval, political vicissitudes, scandal. These references serve to locate us as viewers in our present circumstances. House of Cards (2015), for instance, brings to mind the 2016 US presidential contest, and Chinese Dream (2014), a political slogan recently invented by current leader Xi Jinping, brings us to China’s rather extraordinary rise to prominence on the world stage today, both in its successes and its challenges.

That said, to focus too narrowly on the thematic, symbolic, or articulable elements of Zhong’s work is a misstep. The geographical reading of Zhong’s “Other Shore” is therefore also limited. If there is one major theme which travels throughout his work, it is flight, whether of actual birds or of human figures in various states of levitation. The avian imagery carries with it its own set of symbolisms. Cranes – a symbol of longevity, among others –feature prominently in Zhong’s work, but we also see eagles, and even pigeons. The hawk in Take Off (2015), the Avalokiteshvara figure arising majestically out of Journey to the West, (2015), and the repeated image of a woman in flight seen throughout Velarium (2015), are prominent examples in this exhibition.

Nonetheless, after spending some time pursuing the more recognizable features of Zhong’s repertoire, we notice that he’s not entirely interested in these elements anyway, except, to quote the title of an early 20th-century Chinese poem, as a sort of “organization of distances.” This organization is to a degree topical and connected to our present moment. For example, in The Other Shore (2015), Palmyra, a recent casualty of ISIS aggression in Syria, occupies the upper right portion of the canvas. However, on closer examination, we see that Zhong’s juxtapositions are designed to reveal underlying forces that generate or at least flow through all the material forms. We see in the first place a universal pneuma (or “qi” 气, in Chinese parlance) that propels all matter forward in time. From this space, in other words, we move on to what is really “The Other Shore” in Zhong’s work: time. To be more precise, it is the problem of depicting time that has preoccupied Zhong Biao from a young age. As he recalled during a recent speech given at an exhibition in Beijing, the fact that perception of an event, even one taking place directly in front of us, still occurs milliseconds after the end of the occurrence, or that the light we see coming from a distant planet actually appear to our eyes thousands of years after the death of the planet, were entirely befuddling to him.[2] If, he continued in this speech, we consider time to be a cake, and we cut the cake in two, with the past on one side, and the future on the other, we find ourselves with nothing but a knife and emptiness.

It is also this preoccupation with time that drove Zhong, around the year 2006, to include abstract images in his work. The abstract strokes are depictions of the forces that pervade our phenomenal world, ever-present and yet not confined to linear sequence of spatial reality. This abstract element has also evolved notably as well as subtly in his work over the years. In earlier paintings, there were smooth swaths of color, executed with large brushes in a balletic process (Zhong works with an assistant who helps him move large canvases up and down as he quite literally dances and paints in front of them, often with thunderous musical accompaniment), further punctuated by drips. Those abstract forms were akin to the occasional video installations Zhong includes with his exhibitions, where hyperrealist images from paintings appear on a video screen, and then dissolve, with traces of recognizable figures giving way to completely abstract forms before reconstituting as new figures. More recently, the swaths have grown richer, more angular and three-dimensional, giving a sense of layered or parallel realities torn from one another, conjuring memory both recalled and ruptured. Houhai (2015) is an excellent example of the way Zhong now deftly weaves hyperrealism with complete abstraction, allowing him to challenge the limits of each in a single canvas.

In fact, the blend of figural and abstract is broadly emblematic of Zhong’s work, both as a painter and a thinker. His goal is to use painting to challenge the limits of space and time which frame our experience. Whether or not launching such a challenge fully answers his question as to what he wants to do with his life is an open question. As he works towards an answer, we have plenty to look at in the meantime.

 

 

[1] Bazaar Art and Fashion 芭莎艺术. “Artist Zhong Biao: Without Curiosity, There Is No Inspiration” (艺术家钟飙:不怀揣问号,还想泡灵感?). Interview, 25 Dec., 2015. Web.

[2] Zhong Biao. “Exhibition Closing Remarks,” Zhong Gallery 中画廊, Beijing. 15 Oct., 2015.

Zhong Biao “Splitting Time”



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Here is a 5 minute video of Zhong Biao speaking at the end of the “Splitting Time” (切开时间) exhibition. The exhibition was held at the Zhong Gallery (中画廊) in Beijing. It was a small-scale operation (only nine paintings), but a lively (if a bit noisy) crowd and lots of good wine.

Here we get a good sense of Zhong’s characteristic painting philosophy, something that involves the very largest philosophical issues (space and time) as an integral part of his process. The sound, visual quality and subtitles are all a bit rough, but at least an outline of the essential ideas emerges.

 

 

 

Zhong Biao, new work

 

Zhong Biao has opened up some new vistas in his work, something which in itself is not surprising as he’s been developing and changing at least since I began following his work in 2005. This time, though, I think he’s moved in a notably new direction, call it a lateral rather than vertical innovation. Gone (at least for the moment) is the restless do-more-different style of change that drove the 2009 video installation of the Embrace! exhibition in Denver, or the 2013 ground-to-ceiling and all points in between Tailoring Clouds 裁云剪水 installation in Suzhou Art Museum. This time he has returned to oil painting, and with heightened attention, in his own words, “to the painting process itself.” This is manifest in a number of ways, including a heightened fragmentation of the image, giving his juxtapositions, both on the figural/content and abstract/figural axis, a new level of poignancy. His abstract components in particular find better ways to reside on the canvas, echoing pneuma that seem to both situate and alienate the figures they surround. The “transmigration” image is particularly deft, both building on a kind of pixelation theme which I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, but adding a watery glass-like texture at once supple and explosive. And as usual the Tibetan monastery at the center gestures towards some political content, just as it pushes that idea completely out of the image.

 

Back Lake 后海

Back Lake 后海

 

 

In the Now 当下

In the Now 当下

 

 

Transmigration 轮回

Transmigration 轮回

Zhong Biao at the Margins of the Avant-garde

 

Last month at the American Comparative Literature Conference in Seattle, on a panel co-organized by Barrett Watten, Jonathan Stalling and Jacob Edmond, I was presenting on Zhong Biao. Here a brief digest of my remarks.

 

Title: Zhong Biao at the Margins of the Avant-garde

Highlights:

Broader context:

I am trying to situate Zhong Biao with regard to the contemporary Chinese avant-garde. In the process, I am posing the following question: if we begin with the assumption that essentially (and among other things) the avant-garde is a challenge to status quo, a compulsion to dissolve codifications wherever they occur (and particularly as they relate to or bolster ideological structures with mass influence, be they market appeal or state apparatus based on coercion), then what of a situation where so few codifications are in fact in effect? –that is contemporary China, a tear-it-up-and-rebuild-it ethos, be it in the array of material work of the built environment or in the circular waves of political campaign didactially deployed to lead the nation “forward” but, I suspect, more often than not not fooling anyone.

Zhong Biao focus:

Zhong’s work strives, through a combination of abstraction and uncanny juxtaposition of realistically rendered figures from disparate space and time, to uncover latent energies or pneuma of the universe, manifest momentarily. The ephemera of our lives and ourselves emerge in his painting at the point of concretization but also dissolution, and always in some inherent interconnectedness.

This is an ambitious project because Zhong’s work does not fit easily within the avant-garde. Indeed, I suspect many would argue that his work belongs in an opposite category, if such a category exists. Where avant-garde practice is oppositional and in some respects destructive, Zhong’s is affirming, constructive, and mainstream. The reason I believe such a conversation is even warranted is that an attempt to situate ZB in AG context encourages fathoming of the limits of each. While discovering limitations of an artist poised too close to market impulses is unremarkable, observing the edge (blunt rather than cutting?) of the avant-garde as marginal overlap with the market is perhaps news.

 

Images discussed:

20、An Overall View 87.8x69.6cm Serigraphs 2013

An Overall View 150 x 120 cm 2013

10 Thousand Years

10 Thousand Years 200 x 150 cm 2011

ZBFLIGHT1

Life 280 x 200 2004

荡漾山水

Swinging Landscape 200 x 150 cm 2010

 

11-090310-ZB

Today 400 x 280 cm 2009

ZBLivingSpace生活空间

Living Space 130 x 130 cm 1996 (Oil on Canvas)